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Arab Women at War: Battles, Assassinations, and Army Leaders

Arab Women at War: Battles, Assassinations, and Army Leaders

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Tuesday 7 March 201707:11 pm

Throughout Islamic history, women have played a prominent role in war. Aisha, considered the mother of all believers, was part of the Battle of the Camel, sometimes called the Battle of Jamal or the Battle of Bassorah, in which the Muslims were divided into two warring sides. That battle took place in Basra in 36 AH. Generally speaking, Islam did not deny women their desire to participate in jihad, and while their participation was based on their own desire, war was only obligatory for men. What were the roles did fulfilled by women at war during the various Islamic eras? These are some of the examples.

Hind bint ‘Utbah was an Arab woman who lived in the late sixth and early seventh centuries CE; she was the wife of Abu Sufyan ibn Harb, a powerful man in Mecca. She was one of the most famous women who fought the Prophet Muhammad and his message, before embracing Islam. Hind was one of four women whose blood had been shed by Muhammad during the conquest of Mecca. She was later forgiven after converting to Islam. In the Great Battle of Badr, Hind played a crucial military role. She energed with the Infidels of Quraish who were led by her husband, Abu Sufyan. This battle was where her father, uncle, and brother were killed. At the time, Hind was one of the fiercest agitators against Muslims, especially during the Battle of Uhud. She led a group of women who sang: We, Tariq's daughters, walk on the cushions. Like the walking of bright sand grouse, Musk is in the partings. The pearls are round the necks. If you advance, we'll embrace you. And if you escape, we'll abandon you. And the abandonment will be sorrowful. Their aim was to support men and encourage them to fight, as well as to deter them from fleeing and defeat. This was the battle in which Hind incited an Abyssinian slave to kill Hamza Bin Abdul Muttalib, in retaliation for the killing of the men of her family. Women also participated in key roles in the battles and invasions led by the Prophet Muhammad. It was Abdullah bin Abbas who wrote that the Prophet brought women along during invasions to treat the wounded and take from the spoils. Perhaps his blessing of Rafidah, the first nurse in Islam, to treat the wounds of Sa'd ibn Mu'adh—who was not her mahram—indicates the permissibility of women nursing foreign patients. Islam did not prevent the participation of women in the invasions and battles, but confined their roles to providing logistical support. They often treated the wounded and prepared food. Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal declared it permissible for a woman to treat sick men, even if she saw their genitalia. Nusseibeh bint Ka'ab (aka Umm Ammarah) played the same role in Islamic wars that the Red Cross plays in contemporaneity. She carried water and aid to the fighters and even took part in the defense of the Prophet. It could be argued that Umm Ammarah was the first woman fighter in Islam. The prophet once said: 'Whenever I looked to the right or left I saw her fighting in front of me.' Asma bint Yazid ibn Al-Sakan accompanied the Prophet in the Battle of Khyber and participated with the Muslims in their war against the Romans during the Battle of Yarmuk. At the time, Asma was the leader of the women in the war. Historians say she killed nine Romans with her tent pole during this battle.

In northern Morocco, about 90 kilometers from the city of Tangier, overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar, lies Chefchaouen. The city bears another name too; the city of the Sayyida al Hurra. Sayyida al Hurra was the princess that once ruled the city and fought its most renowned battles against the Spaniards in the 15th century. Born one year after the fall of Granada, in 1493, Sayyida al Hurra was the daughter of Ali ibn Rashid al-Alami, who founded the city. He named her al Hurra after the name of the mother of Abu Abdullah al-Ahmar, the last king of Granada.

Historian Ali Raissouni said the name that appeared in her marriage certificate was Sayyida al Hurra. She was married at 16 to a man 30 years her senior, a friend of her father, al-Mandri, governor of Tetouan. Along his side, she gained much experience in matters of governance and administration.

He used to delegate to her while he was away at battle against the Portuguese and Spaniards. Following his death, she became the queen of Tétouan. Sayyida al Hurra focused on the construction of ports and warships, based on her knowledge of the importance of maritime superiority in the confrontation of Portugal and Spain, the two largest naval forces in the world at the time.

She sowed terror in the hearts of Spaniards during the war with them. They nicknamed her Barbarossa of Tetouan, after Turkish corsair Barbarossa of Algiers. The Spaniards were defeated, and she banned them from entering northern Morocco. However, she fell victim to intrigues and conspiracies and alliances in the north of Morocco, in the first half of the sixteenth century. Later, she preferred to leave the field and dedicate herself to worship and mysticism, until she died in Chefchaouen.

In his book, Mecca: The Sacred City, Ziauddin Sardar recounts the story of one of the most courageous Arab women in the 19th century, a princess named Ghaliyya al-Bakmiyah, of the Bakom tribe. In 1811, under her leadership, Bedouin and Wahhabi tribes allied in the east of Mecca, in defiance of Ottoman rule in all parts of the Arabian Peninsula. She stood against the influence of Muhammad Ali Pasha, who was determined to crush this alliance. In response, he ordered the deployment of 2,000 soldiers to Wadi Turbah. Her accomplishments began when she hid the news of the death of her husband, Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah bin Mohiuddin. She resumed the issuing of orders to the leaders of the army and the tribe on his behalf. She met their leaders for discussions on matters of war and the military, in addition to providing services to the army and financing it, as well as securing food for it. She moreover led the efforts toward the emancipation from the colonizing forces.

Muhammad Ali’s forces arrived at the outskirts of the town in 1813, and began the first offensive, which Ghaliyya’s army withstood. The following day, the Ottomans attacked again, and again they were defeated. Bedouins followed the fleeing Ottomans toward the port city of Taif, killing hundreds of them. In his book History of Egypt (known in Arabic as Aja'ib al-athar fi al-tarajim wal-akhbar), Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti referred to Ghaliyya’s victory, narrating the tale of the Ottoman leader who was fought by a woman and defeated.

Almost three months after the outbreak of World War I, the Ottoman Empire joined the global conflict on November 11, 1914. Six months later, the Allied forces (Britain, India, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and France) landed on the Turkish Gallipoli peninsula, almost 200 miles away from Istanbul. Britain, which was leading the Allies, tried to force the Ottomans to surrender, but the latter choose war under the command of the German forces. The ensuing confrontation came to be known as the infamous Battle of Gallipoli, one of the most violent battles during World War I, which left half a million dead and wounded on both sides, having lasted about nine months.

It ended with the withdrawal of the Allies. Soldiers wrote in their diaries that the Turkish peninsula was filled with trenches. The two warring sides were so close to each other that British and Turkish soldiers could look into each other's eyes. Eugene Rogan, author of the bestselling The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, collected numerous reports and evidence of the Ottomans employing women as snipers, some of whom were killed during battle. The Allies did not know they were women, but they were excelled at sniping, and battled in the same garb as their male counterparts. Although there is no official or spoken recognition from the Ottoman side, the limited resources of the Ottomans during the war provide support for the hypothesis.

Women played different roles during the Algerian War (1954-1962), known as the Algerian Liberation War. Many of them were part of the National Liberation Front. According to a post-war survey, the number of women in the war amounted to 11,000. According to Meredith Torshin at Rutgers University, women were very active in the war effort, with some of them taking part directly in the conflict, while others served as agents or fundraisers, as well as nursing and providing other services to the battling rebels. Moreover, the role played by certain Algerians during the conflict with the French troops cannot be overlooked. They participated in bringing down numerous civilian and military targets during the war. The recognition of the role of Djamila Boupacha and Djamila Bouhired around the world is a major indication of the importance of their role, and the role of women in general in the conflict.

Leila Khaled is perhaps the most famous among the women of the Palestinian liberation movement, after she became a symbol of armed resistance against Israeli forces between the end of the ‘60s and the early ‘70s. Khaled’s political activism was christened at an age. She joined the Arab Nationalist Movement at the age of 15. Following the 1967 war, she joined the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and on August 29, 1969, she participated in the kidnapping of Flight 840, a Boeing 707 aircraft en route from Rome to Tel Aviv. The plane landed in Damascus. The kidnappers mistakenly thought that the Israeli ambassador to the United States at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, was on board the plane. After the hijacking, Khaled’s picture holding a Kalashnikov became a historic symbol of Palestinian nationalism. When the picture spread, she had to undergo a number of surgical procedures before she once again hijacked another plane. On September 6, 1970, Khaled, along with Patrick Argüello, a Nicaraguan-American, hijacked a plane heading from Amsterdam to New York. Argüello was killed on the plane and Khaled was arrested. After one month in detention, the British government released Khaled in a prisoner swap with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Despite her age, she remains a spokesperson for the Palestinian cause, touring the world and giving lectures.

Modern history is full of stories of the leading roles played by Lebanese women in their struggle against the Israeli occupation. Yassar Mroueh, Sanaa Mhaidly, and Lola Abboud, are just some of the names that emerge as examples of the women who joined the fronts of the national resistance and the secular left-wing parties, giving their lives as the ultimate token of their commitment to the resistance.

More recently, with the escalation of the influence of extremist organizations and terrorist movements, women such as Haila Al-Qaseer, Wafaa Al-Shahri, and Sajida Al-Rishawi, and their role with Al-Qaeda, are becoming more prominent. Following in their footsteps is Islamic State’s Al-Khansaa Brigade, whose members are responsible for investigations, building borders, and recruiting foreign women for the organization.

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